Jane Eyre is the first book that I read for The Classics Club, an online group where each member sets a significant number of classics that he or she intends to read within a span of time. If you want to know, I set my goal to 75 pre-1950 books within 5 years. Also, this is the fourth book of our book club for this year. So yes, this book can be considered a reading milestone for me.
Which is not so bad, because I thoroughly enjoyed each page. I am actually surprised at how I reacted to it because at the some level, this is a romantic novel. I chose to use the adjective “romantic” instead of the noun “romance” just so that I would not be required to define what romance is for me to defend my judgment.
Anyway, Jane Eyre opens with our lead character, none other than Jane, contemplating the rainy weather and reading a book. We learn that from her that she was orphaned before she could even remember things, and while she lost herself in whatever it was that she was reading, she was hit by her older male cousin. Okay, this smells like a sappy drama about martyr girls, but lo, Jane rushes forth to attack the offending cousin.
Feisty, huh? But there’s more!
“How dare I, Mrs Reed? How dare I? Because it is the truth. You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so: and you have no pity. I shall remember how you thrust me back–roughly and violently thrust me back–into the red-room, and locked me up there, to my dying day; though I was in agony; though I cried out, while suffocating with distress, ‘Have mercy! Have mercy, aunt Reed!’ And that punishment you made me suffer because your wicked boy struck me–knocked me down for nothing. I will tell anybody who asks , me questions, this exact tale. People think you a good woman, but you are bad; hard-hearted. You are deceitful!”
I do not like my characters to be weaklings, and if they are, they must have a very good reason to be. And this Jane Eyre, a passionate young girl, impressed me immediately with that retaliation towards her benefactor. After that, she leaves the house of the Reeds, and the search for her place in this world begins. Jane studies at a boarding school and starts investing feelings for her new-found friends, particularly Helen and Mrs Temple who become important figures in Jane’s life.
We see Jane grow with a profound sense of self-esteem and independence. A little on the plain side but very much a lady. A fundamental feminist as well, you say? Think twice, because after her boarding school life, she is employed as the governess of French girl under the care of Edward Rochester. And this Rochester, one of the most popular male characters in literature, stirs awake the longing heart of plain Jane.
But it is not that simple, because if Jane and Mr Rochester end up happily ever after early at this point, I would have days to wonder why such a work is considered a classic. The novel opened with the impossibility of taking a walk due to bad weather, which is not really to my liking, so surely, there must be some big conflict in the works, no?
Before that, let me just say that the novel is brimming with themes about religion, social classes, and gender roles, and it would take me longer than usual if I try to tackle all three. So I will just settle with the world’s favorite theme, love. And freedom. So you see, Rochester is the object of Jane Eyre’s desires, but he also poses a threat to her indomitable sense of freedom. A revelation about Rochester’s character will complicate the matter, subjecting Jane’s integrity upon a severe test that will send her away from the man that she loves.
During her self-imposed exile, Jane meets St John Rivers, an apt name for a pastor. Nothing romantic here, for St John merely wants Jane as a wife-slash-companion in order to fully realize his religious duties. So, here are the options that Jane has: go back to Rochester and resume her love affair without minding her dignity and integrity, or accept St John in the service of God and fully repress all her heart’s desires.
There are some who think Jane Eyre a blind fool and weak woman for falling for someone like Rochester. Quite unbecoming for a woman of strong character, no? And let me just say that Rochester is not your fair prince astride a white horse. He is almost twice as old as Jane, has an irascible temper, and he has, arguably, a reputation for being an asshole. And St John, oh dear, must be, so to speak, your boy next door.
Something must be compromised, Jane Eyre. And surprisingly, what Jane does is not usually what I would approve, and some meddling by the higher forces is a little connived, but I still enjoyed the novel with a huge smile plastered on my face. There’s even an unnecessary conclusion that tends a bit towards nostalgia and over-sentimentality, but I didn’t mind that. What’s a few more pages? All I thought upon closing the novel is oh, give the woman a break. She’s old enough to know what she wants and she’s happy, so why question her past actions?
And oh, Jane Eyre is not a difficult book to read. The sentence construction is definitely old-fashioned, but one need not be a Scrabble master to understand the text. It’s actually very amusing and charming, and I think that is exactly why this book is well-loved by a lot of readers.